Got an e-mail Tuesday from a reader and occasional responder, an independent researcher named Andrew Percival who majored in geography as a college student. He put me in a wayback machine with some observations on the long-term prospects for Pac-12 basketball.
Of course, the depressed nature of the league this year has been a major topic of conversation, something I entertained in detail in the Monday edition of the Times. Now comes Percival to suggest that this isn’t a phenomenon that will necessarily just go away.
Percival has examined in detail the production by region and race of NFL and NBA players (until 2006, after which the exit of the Sonics so infuriated him, he stopped doing it for pro basketball). A fundamental part of his research is that no matter the region, African-Americans are much more likely to make the NFL or NBA than white athletes.
His conclusion, as regards Pac-12 hoops, is that since the Western U.S. has a much lower percentage of African-Americans than other regions, and that basketball is heavily dependent on African-Americans, the Pac-12 may be doomed over the long haul to being a league less prominent than the Big East, Big Ten or SEC.
That’s when the alarm went off in my head.
Back in 1985, while as a columnist for the Eugene Register-Guard, I was wrestling with the issue of why Pac-10 basketball was suddenly so bad. That year, four teams made the NCAA tournament, and all four were on the plane home after one game. (That included Washington, which lost to Kentucky in the last game Marv Harshman coached.)
I managed to dig up the column this week. Among the points was: “It may be no coincidence that while California has a population of 25,622,000, in 1980 its ratio of blacks was at eight percent, or four percentage points below the national average.”
Of course, the hypothesis was, with modest levels of African-American population in the Western states, and the practice of many athletes to attend schools nearby, that Pac-10 schools could suffer competitively. Back then, I wrote about programs like LSU, Notre Dame and Duke coming into California to recruit and further thin the talent pool. Today, half the college basketball world recruits there.
Pulling African-American regional population percentages from the 2000 census among males aged 10-30 — East, 11 percent; Midwest, 12 percent; South, 29 percent; West, five percent — Percival concludes: ” . . . In my opinion, the Pac-12 has no chance to consistently be a top-three basketball conference . . .”
Percival backs up that claim with this observation from his research: ” . . . the West was the #1 black per capita producer of NBA talent by far and the South was the #4 black per capita producer of NBA talent but when looking at the entire population, the South was #1 and the West was #4 (literally the opposite).” In other words, volume matters.
I don’t want to get too far afield, and I can’t begin to do justice to the depth of his research. But he also found the West, to his surprise, “to be the dominant sports region, when adjusting for race . . . I was astounded to discover this with my football spreadsheet. I did not expect the black populations in the Western U.S. to outperform their counterparts in the South when it came to producing NFL players, and I also did not expect the same from the white population (your stereotypical white football crazy zealot in Texas would be shocked to learn that the surfer boys in California make the NFL as frequently as their sons do) . . .”
Keep in mind, it’s on a per-capita basis.
Percival’s point on Pac-12 hoops is very logical – just as I believe my hypothesis was logical back in 1985. But it’s worth making the point that with the world shrinking and some coaches willing to go out far outside the Pac-12 footprint, some of the regional limitations can be overcome. Lots of Pac-12 programs have recruited profitably in the Midwest in recent years, for instance. Ernie Kent did it at Oregon, Lute Olson did at Arizona and Sean Miller is casting a wide net for the Wildcats now. Lorenzo Romar has gotten players for Washington from the Midwest, and when WSU flourished under Tony Bennett, the Cougars were recruiting from all over. A guy I’d contend should be in the argument for their best-player-ever honor, Kyle Weaver, came from Wisconsin. It’s probably also worth remembering that in basketball, a key player or two can make a huge difference.
Still, the general rule is that if it’s a down cycle in high school talent in California, it’s probably going to be tough on Pac-12 programs. And as my story in Monday’s Times pointed out, the 2008 Long Beach Press-Telegram’s 15-man first team on its annual Best in the West list included 10 players who chose schools outside the Pac-12. If you’re losing the top-tier talent at that rate, it’s hard to make up such volume by outsmarting your competitors with keen evaluation on others.
Having said all that, it’s worth noting that there have been some banner years in Pac-12 basketball, enough to believe the league can be good on a reasonably consistent basis:
In 1997, Arizona won the NCAA title and the league had four teams in the Sweet 16.
In 1998, four more made the Sweet 16 and Stanford went to the Final Four.
In 2001, UCLA made the Sweet 16, Stanford and USC went to the Elite Eight and Arizona played in the title game.
In 2002, 2007 and 2008, the league had three teams in the Sweet 16, with UCLA making Final Fours in ’07-08 and Oregon getting to the Elite Eight in ’02 and ’07.
That’s a lot of success in a 15-year period, even if, in many years, the league wouldn’t have been rated among the top one or two in the nation. So it’s not as though the Pac-12 can’t be awfully good, demographics notwithstanding. Given the woes of 2012, most fans would no doubt settle for passably mediocre.